Prehistoric mysteries

While it’s commonly assumed that the experts who work in museums and universities know absolutely everything, this (unfortunately!) is not always the case.  While researching some of the objects that we want to profile in the Cutting Edge project, a few have had our prehistory team stumped.  Some discussion has focussed on an object’s identification (is it a knife or a sickle?) but occasionally a debate has broken out over an object’s provenance.  The provenance of an object is important as this tells us where an object was found and so provides vital context.

The background of one particular object however has generated some serious debate…..

This is a stone axehead, and it’s currently on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock, in the “Ice Age to Iron Age” gallery.  As far as we know, it was found in Gateshead.  According to the person who donated the object, it was discovered during the early 1970s.  As the story goes, it transpires that a factory workman unearthed it while digging a pit in preparation for concrete foundations to be laid in order to install heavy machinery.  The axehead was found at a depth of about 3 metres…very near a human skull.

Whatever happened to the human remains is another tale completely.  The axehead eventually found its way into our collections thanks to a generous donor, and that should have been the end of the story.

It wasn’t.

By the mid 1990s after some examinations, theories began to emerge that the axehead may have had its origins not in Gateshead, but in PolynesiaThis speculation has garnered serious debate, and an article on the subject was written by J. Pollard in 1998 for Archaeologia Aeliana*, the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (SANT). 

The puzzle of how a Polynesian axe could be found in the northeast of England as part of a presumed prehistoric burial site can not be solved by this blogger!  However, it is fervently hoped that with the creation of the Cutting Edge project other interested enthusiasts both professional and amateur may be able to shed light on mysteries such as these. 

* J. Pollard, “Oddity, Import or Ethnographic Curiosity? A Stone Axe from Gateshead”, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th Series, Vol XXVI, pg 165-6


Prehistory on a global scale

 While Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums have fantastic collections from the north east of England, we have accumulated over the years a vast assortment of artefacts from many continents.  Here are just a few of the items that have been discovered worldwide and will be showcased in the Cutting Edge.



Hidden beauty

One of the main aims of the Cutting Edge project is to provide scholars and interested individuals access to data relating to prehistoric objects from our collections.  This project has allowed me to not only analyse the fantastic objects that are permanently on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock, but also have a look through the vast collections we keep stored away.  These hidden collections are not often seen by the public and so our team have been determined to include as many of these objects as possible within the project.  As an archaeologist, I naturally think that all of our objects are interesting, but occasionally during my searches I have uncovered some truly beautiful objects.  This is one of my favourites:

                         Jade adze blade               Laing Art Gallery, TWCMS : H6501 

 An adze is a tool used for smoothing or carving out wood and is among the earliest type of stone tool identified in the archaeological record.  This adze has been made out of jade.  It’s highly polished and the colours within the stone are beautiful- vibrant shades of green with creamy brown streaks and swirls.

 While prehistoric archaeology may initially conjure up the image of piles of flintwork, this project has uncovered some hidden gems that aren’t normally seen by many people.  The Cutting Edge will make sure a much wider audience can appreciate these fantastic objects.

Licensing and Other Legal Issues

What issues are we dealing with in the Cutting Edge Edge project?

Dr. Stephen McGough explains about the technical issues.

The software produced for this project will be released under an open source license. The exact license is still under debate but will most likely be selected as one of the more common software licenses such as GPL, LGPL or BSD, although the University will retain the rights of ownership to the software in the case of potential IPR exploitation. However, as this work will be accessing information held within other repositories and the information federated together through our portal the issues of licenses and other legal issues has a profound effect on the project.

As we require access (through API’s) to different databases this requires, in most cases, a set of user credentials in order to access these repositories. Obtaining these credentials is often fraught with complications as access to the data brings up its own licensing and ownership issues. In general most of the data that we wish to access is openly available, though in some cases held at facilities that also hold other non-open data. As we will be accessing this data programmatically through an API this raises concerns of security. Though as we (in general) only require read access to this data we can avoid most of these security concerns. There is also the issue of ownership of this data. We need to verify that the data we are accessing is open for us to present and that we adhere to any requirements over this data, such as attributing ownership and clearly identifying this data. Thankfully the core source data, which we are accessing for this project, is all publically available and the other data resources, which we are accessing, are open sources of information.

The other element for this project is the ability for users to add additional information to the site. In order to reduce the complexities for this project of ownership of this data we have adopted the model of reference to these other sources of data. Hence, if a user wishes to attach photographs, images or other documents to an item within our repository rather than uploading these files to our repository they provide a URL link to these files located on a remote site. In this way we remove the risk to ourselves of breaking copyright. Such links to external data can be marked as such allowing the user to realize that this data is not part of the main site. The one exception to this process is the ability for a user to add short textual notes to artifacts within the collection. This is meant to cover useful information not published through other sites. For example a researcher may make notes on an artifact in preparation for a publication and desire that these are not made public until a given date in the future  – to allow them time to publish. The intention here is that users will provide this information under a creative commons license allowing us to use the information as appropriate, with the provision for an embargo on the original publication of this information.

To prevent the publication of illegal information through this above short notes system or links to external URLs we plan to use the approach of only displaying notes which have been approved by a number of trusted users. Notes and URLs can only be placed by a logged in user to the site and only initially viewed by logged in users. Once a set number of trusted users have agreed that the post is legal and appropriate then the note or URL can be displayed to non-logged in users. A final stage is also envisioned in which data collected could also be rolled back into the underlying database in a case where it was considered to be significant enough to be added to the primary record.

Users and use cases

So who is our website for?

Dr. Andrea Dolfini explains…

The JISC ‘Cutting Edge’ project will establish an innovative service for the entire HE sector in the UK as well as for students and researchers worldwide. For the first time scholars will have direct online access to comprehensive metadata for an unusually varied range of over 1000 objects, mainly stone and metal, drawn from archaeological and ethnographic collections.  Metadata including high-resolution pictures will focus in particular on the cutting edge (and in many cases the hafting area) of the object. This will support multidisciplinary teaching and research into the analysis of use-wear patterns, and to some extent the manufacturing methods and post-manufacturing technological history of the objects. The metadata archive is primarily intended for the wider community of analysts, metallurgists, ethnographers, prehistorians, conservators, and experimental archaeologists, but users may also include members of the general public such as archaeology enthusiasts and metal-detectorists.

Uses of the online-accessible metadata archive are manifold. These range from Newcastle University students working on artefact-centred projects as a part of their courses to established use-wear specialists, who will be able to select a sample of objects for analysis from their desktop computers. Moreover, the metadata archive will further enhance the role of Newcastle University as a world-leading research institution for artefact studies.  It will also contribute to bringing the extensive collections of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle and the Natural History Society of Northumbria to the forefront of international archaeological and ethnographic research. Importantly, inclusion of objects made from different materials, found in different places, and belonging to different periods into the database will allow scholars to cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries and develop new and heterodox pathways to artefact research.

The problems the Cutting Edge addresses

So why are we so interested in prehistoric cutting tools?

Dr. Andrea Dolfini answers the question….

Traditional archaeological approaches to ancient and historic edged tools normally involved the typological classification and the chemical analysis of the objects. The first task was carried out by painstakingly drawing artefacts from several museum collections, grouping them based on their shapes and features, and publishing them in paper catalogues (e.g. the Prähistorische Bronzefunde series for European prehistory). The second was often achieved by sampling the objects to determine their elemental composition by using various analytical techniques. More recently, a scholarly interest has developed for the full technological history of these objects including their manufacturing methods, their post-manufacturing transformations (e.g. mechanical sharpening or, for metalwork, work-hardening), and their use-life. New analytical techniques have thus been experimented and old ones have been extended to new materials. These include use-wear analysis, whose application was originally limited to lithic and osseous artefacts.

Yet the new research approaches require novel sets of metadata, which by and large are still lacking. In particular, selecting a sample of objects for use-wear analysis requires – besides the normal set of archaeological and analytical (chemical) data – access to high-resolution pictures of the objects with particular reference to those parts that researchers are most interested in, i.e. the cutting edges and, in many cases, the hafting areas. This is especially important for metalwork, for surface corrosion may seriously hinder any possibility of detecting manufacturing and use traces on the cutting edge of these objects. The goal of the present project is precisely to respond to the growing demand for such metadata archives and to make these accessible to students and researchers worldwide.